Top: A graphic depicting an elder, illegal logs, abandoned logs and camp, and harvesting maps from an unlawful plan the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) approved. The DayLight/Rebazar Forte

By Esau J. Farr

CONIWEIN, Grand Bassa County – One day in late 2020, Abednego Davies spotted some loggers felling trees on the way to his farm.

The forest does not fall within the Marblee & Karblee Community Forest so, what were they doing there, Davies thought to himself. The land belongs to Coniwein a section in the Marblee Clan in Grand Bassa’s District Number Two. 

Surprised and suspicious, Davies headed back to his village and told the elders, who proved his suspicion was right. In no time, the elders summoned a representative of the African Wood and Lumber Company and halted the illegal operations.

African Wood conceded it encroached on the villagers’ territory and began to negotiate to continue but that would not happen, according to documents The DayLight obtained and elders we interviewed.

The elders knew the harvesting was happening on the Coniwein’s land and so it was illegal. Back in 2019, Coniwein had opted to be part of the Marblee & Karblee Community Forest but African Wood refused, according to Gonaweh Gbiahgaye, one of the elders. The following year,  the elders had warned African Wood from their land while the company prepared to harvest.  

“Coniwein is a section with a substantial deed, which, if you want to do anything, you should meet the citizens,” villagers said in a May 2020 letter to African Wood at the time. Coniwein’s land covers 6,760 acres, a copy of the community’s deed, seen by The DayLight, shows.

Having ignored Coniwein’s warning, African Wood now tried to convince the elders to continue the illegal operations. A meeting by the parties ended in deadlock, according to Gbiahgaye.

The elders wrote Joshua Howard, a manager of the African Wood, rejecting its proposal to keep the logs in question and cut additional ones. Then they asked the company to pay for the logs it had harvested.

“We are telling you not to touch any of the logs or cut down any logs until we all meet and come down to one conclusion,” the January 2021 letter read.

The DayLight photographed the stumps of trees of African Wood and Lumber illegally harvested in Coniwein private forest in Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/Harry Browne

Such negotiation is prohibited in forestry. Communities are under a legal obligation to inform the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) in such matters, according to the Regulation on Confiscated Logs, Timber and Timber Products. It requires the FDA to investigate and seek a court’s approval to confiscate and then auction the logs in question. It also sets a penalty for logging outside a contract area.

But amid their rowdy negotiation, a huge pile of the illegal logs adjacent to Davies’ farm disappeared between March and July, according to some villagers.

African Wood had taken the logs not long after Davies discovered the illegal operations, former workers of the company said. One account had it that the company smuggled the woods overnight. However, The DayLight could not independently verify the claim.

“When they felled the logs, they took some and some remained in the bush. Our work was to extract logs from the bush for the company,” said David, whose duties included fastening the tags bearing barcodes to the logs.   

Another former worker, Daniel Muopoe, corroborated the account. He said, “[African Wood] felled our logs from our community but they never carried [all of them].”

A handwritten letter from Coniwein to African Wood, warning the company against its encroachment on the community’s land. The DayLight/Esau J. Farr

In total, African Wood harvested about 200 logs, according to Muopoe and other ex-workers who participated in the illegal operations.

A team of reporters from The DayLight photographed and videotaped some of the logs in a forest near a town called Wayglon before and after the disappearance. White tags clearly brandishing “African Wood & Lumber Company” were attached to the wood. Some standing trees had tags on them, suggesting they had been earmarked for harvesting.  Felled trees lay in the forest in a number of locations, some rotting.

With no logs nor money and three years after Davies’ discovery, Coniwein has decided to inform the FDA about the incident.

Actually, elders attempted to inform the agency but a townsman tasked to lodge a complaint did not do so. “I have not gone to the FDA because I don’t know how to get to them,” Patrick Karngbo, who serves as Coniwein’s land administrator, told The DayLight.

What Coniwein did not know was that the FDA had authorized the harvesting on their land.

The FDA had illegally granted African Wood and six other companies access to excess forests to harvest in short timeframes.  The most infamous of the seven was the West African Forest Development Incorporated (WAFDI). A Ministry of Justice investigation discovered WAFDI had harvested the illicit forest area for nearly three years, exporting thousands of round logs.

Gonaweh Gbiahgaye, an elder of Coniwein Section in District Number Two, Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/Harry Browne

But African Wood’s harvesting of the illegal FDA-approved forest area remained unreported—until now.

African Wood’s harvesting plan for 2019-2020 shows the FDA authorized the company to cut trees on 5,600 hectares. However, the plan further shows that 6.95 percent of the FDA-approved area was outside Marblee & Karblee, including in Coniwein. 

Doryen wrongly claimed in the letter that the plan conformed with the Guideline for Forest Management Planning and the Regulation on Pre-felling Requirements. “After thorough review… by the joint team…, we hereby approve said plan, having met all basic requirements,” Doryen wrote African Wood’s CEO Cesare Colombo on June 17, 2019.

On the contrary, the plan broke all those legal instruments. Doryen did not respond to questions The DayLight emailed to him for this story.

African Wood’s operations in Coniwein are not the company’s first logging offense.

In December 2020, the company harvested 550 logs in a forest in River Cess without the FDA’s approval. The FDA replaced a ranger in responsible for that region but did not take any known required action against the firm.

Adjacent to Coniwein’s woodland, African Wood has neglected the Marblee & Karblee Community Forest, leaving the landowners with about a US$140,000 debt and abandoning 2,682 logs, according to official records.   

Colombo did not respond to questions for comments.

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